Pen Ultimate / Post-matzam

We were overwhelmed by the invitations to come and recline at other families' seders this year, but politely declined.

Although it says clearly in the Haggadah that "after the paschal lamb no afikoman [symbolic dessert] must be added," I venture to write about Passover, presuming audaciously that this column is seen - at least by some readers, perhaps - as a dessert. I withheld my comments about the seder this long mainly in order to check (and balance) my own feelings about it.

As it happened, our eldest son, his spouse, their 19-month-old son and his teddy bear decided to spend Passover in the Italian Diaspora; our younger son and his spouse did their duty, narrating the departure from Egypt with other Israelis in Enschede, The Netherlands; and our daughter, her spouse and their 2.5-month-old son went to recline with her in-laws in the illustrious city of Netanya.

The reading of the Haggadah starts with the declaration, recited to this very day in Aramaic (probably for fear that too many people will take it literally): "Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover." We were overwhelmed by the sheer number of invitations to come and recline at other families' seders this year, but politely declined. It was not easy: People took offense at our polite, negative response, so when we were asked once again "And where will you be spending the seder?" we answered rather obliquely "with friends," just to get off the hook.

In many homes in Israel the Passover meal brings to the fore all possible - and some impossible - familial feuds and grudges. These concern who is to be invited and who will not be, who will be guests at whose table and why, and who will not be invited this year (and for a very good reason; he/she should know better!), but will show up anyway. Indeed, there are many seders with unhappy family members reclining together around the table, finding it quite difficult to fill the uncomfortable silences between nibbles. Luckily, the sages left us with a set piece to recite during the hors d'oeuvres, so the situation is less awkward.

Over the years, it has dawned on me that many of us (and I mean "us" in the sense of the "royal we") conduct the seder meal while reading the Haggadah in the spirit of Rabban Gamliel, who said: "Whoever does not mention the following three things on Passover has not fulfilled his duty." We were and are slaves to the duties we keep fulfilling.

Although I happen to be a nonbeliever, and am not very strict about observing Jewish customs such as keeping kosher on other days of the year, I decided to check out all the things that I'm supposed to do during Passover: I'm supposed to eat unleavened bread for seven days, and to get rid of any leaven in my house. Whiskey being leaven, this is much too heavy a task for me to undertake, so I've exempted myself from it.

It has been my duty to narrate the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and during my last 50 years in the land of Israel, I have narrated it again and again - literally and metaphorically. Been there, done that. As to the directive that "thou shalt tell thy son" (I do have a daughter as well!), I've "told" my offspring every year for more than 25 years - and it is high time for them to "tell" their own children.

Concerning this last matter, however, my conscience is not entirely clean. When my children were young and impressionable, I used to read through the Haggadah at the speed of summer lightning (only the first part, as many Israelis do, and it is shorter than we think), albeit loudly and clearly. Only when the kids started to grow up did I become interested in what it says - and also, mainly, why it says what it does in that particular order.

I was not becoming a born-again Jew; I was just interested in the subject at hand for reasons of Jewish culture and heritage. The Responsa project of Bar-Ilan University was a great help (its staff will receive the Israel Prize this year, for a very good reason), as were many books written on the topic. I learned a lot of fascinating things and was only too eager to inform all those gathered around our seder table over the years about my newly acquired knowledge. In great detail. But with the aromas from the kitchen and my outspoken children having minds of their own, the atmosphere was one of impatience. The audience was - how should I put it? - somewhat unruly.

My better half, may she live a long and happy life, adheres to the notion that each participant at the seder should enjoy a fair share of reading from the Haggadah, so that all will partake of a common Jewish family experience. I, on the other hand, have an overbearing tendency to take over any conversation in which I take part - even when I talk to myself. My efforts over the years to enrich the holiday repast with morsels of my knowledge were on a collision course with my spouse's efforts to ensure a shared experience and with the hunger of the assembled guests, who were not easily sustained by crumbs of matza and various dips. We all behaved as if the seder was great fun, but a scent of bitterness hung in the air. Or at least I thought it did.

This year at the seder my wife set a festive table, adding to the tasty chicken her famous rice salad with almonds and raspberries (as she is of Jewish Portuguese ancestry, we are not particular about legumes and the like on Passover), and I uncorked a bottle of a very good wine. We wined and dined while talking at leisure about many things, the Exodus being one of them.

Being the youngest present, Bella, our daughter's cat, who has taken up residence with us since the last war, asked "Wherefore is this meow different from all other meows?"; Rufus, the senior cat, stole the afikoman. He asked for a bicycle, but after some hard bargaining settled for a chicken wing. It was one of the most pleasant and relaxed seders I had in years. Indeed, I went to bed feeling I had truly been brought forth from servitude to redemption.

But next year we will have the family around our holiday table, with all the boys and girls, sucklings and elders (i.e., me). And I intend to rise again and to pour over them treasures from my fountain of knowledge, all night long, till my pupils come to me and say: "Enough is enough."